If you only have a single day to visit the park, a drive around Yosemite Valley is probably the best option. Longer visits provide options for hiking, visiting sites outside the Valley, and getting a fuller experience of what the Sierra Nevadas have to offer.
Visiting in winter provides the opportunity to see dramatic winter landscapes in Yosemite Valley or to ski in Badger Pass, but much of the park will be inaccessible due to winter road closures. Spring is the best time to see the waterfalls at their strongest. During the summertime all park roads are open, and Tuolumne Meadows will be snow-free and full of flowers. The Fall offers a time with smaller crowds, cooler weather, and access to the entire park (unless there is an early snowstorm).
The vast majority of tourists to Yosemite will spend almost all of their time in Yosemite Valley. Returning visitors and experienced travelers alike would be well-served to avoid the valley and visit more isolated sites.
Yosemite Valley is the reason why Yosemite was America’s first place set aside by the federal government for its scenic beauty. The cliffs rise around the valley at impossibly vertical angles, waterfalls tumble down unimpeded from a thousand feet above, and the Merced River meanders aimlessly along the valley floor. The Valley is also one of the most accessible places in the park, with roads open year-round and plenty of amenities including lodging and food (but no gas stations). During summer months traffic can make the valley highly congested, so consider using the shuttle to cut down on stress.
Those entering the valley via Highway 41 will be treated to the spectacular viewpoint known as Tunnel View. Named for the tunnel that bores through the granite, the eastern side provides a dramatic view of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome in the center. Photographers should consider this area for pictures after storms, as many of the most famous pictures of the Valley have been taken from this spot as rough weather clears. There are two small parking lots that can get congested, so arrive early in the day if visiting during Summer to ensure a spot.
The sights in the valley include the granite monolith of Half Dome, a mountain that looks like it was split in two, leaving only a vertical face and rounded granite summit behind. In reality Half Dome was formed in the same way that many of Yosemite’s granite formations were created – long ago an intrusion of magma deep underground solidified to form a massive granite block, and that block was eventually exposed to the surface via a combination of erosion and uplift. Glaciers that flowed through Yosemite did the rest, carving out the wide, U-shaped valleys that are bordered by sheer vertical walls. These same forces created the wall of El Capitan, a mecca for rock climbers and another of the Valley’s famous formations.
Waterfalls in Yosemite Valley include Yosemite Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the world at 2425 feet (782 m). Bridalveil Fall is another easily accessible waterfall, while Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall can be reached by those willing to do some hiking. While some water flows over the waterfalls year-round, by mid-Summer flows are significantly diminished – plan on visiting in the Spring to see these waterfalls at their grandest.
Wawona is the home to the historic Wawona Hotel, dating from the late nineteenth century. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, a collection of historic buildings, is just over the covered bridge from the hotel. Wawona is accessible by car year-round.
The Mariposa Grove is the largest of the three giant sequoias groves in the park (the Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove are the other two) and is home to over 500 mature trees. While not the tallest or oldest things on earth, by volume the giant sequoias are the largest living organism known to man. The grove is south of Wawona near the entrance station, with parking available in a lot located two miles from the grove, and a shuttle bus available to bring visitors from the parking lot into the grove. Trails lead from the Lower Grove to the Upper Grove – traversing the entire route is a 3-4 mile hike, depending on the paths chosen. Trees within a short walk of the lower parking area include the Grizzly Giant, a massive 1800 year old tree, and the California Tunnel tree, which was cut in 1895 to allow carriages to pass through. Further on, in the Upper Grove, is the Clothespin Tree, which has a natural tunnel in it created by fire that is large enough for a car to pass through, the Wawona Tunnel tree, another tree with a man-made tunnel in it that fell in 1969, and the Telescope Tree, a living tree that is hollow inside, allowing visitors to enter its trunk and stare upwards.
Glacier Point and Badger Pass
Glacier Point, an overlook with a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite’s high country, is generally regarded as the most spectacular viewpoint in the park. It is accessible by car from approximately late May through October or November. Driving time from Wawona and Yosemite Valley is about an hour, but during the busiest summer weekends delays of up to two hours are possible if the Glacier Point parking lot fills. From the parking lot a quarter mile long paved walkway leads to a viewpoint 3214 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. From mid-December through March the road is usually closed, but cross-country skiers can experience this view after skiing 10.5 miles. The area is particularly popular late in the day to watch the light changing on Half Dome, and is also an excellent area for stargazing. Washburn Point, just south of Glacier Point, offers views of the southern side of Yosemite Valley.
Badger Pass is the oldest ski area in California, and is along the road to Glacier Point. The road to Badger Pass is plowed year round, and this area is the starting point for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing during the winter. During winter months a free shuttle runs twice a day from Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass.
The Tioga Road (Highway 120 East) is an amazingly scenic route through Yosemite’s high country that crosses the park from west-to-east and provides access to the Eastern Sierra and Mono Lake. This road is closed in winter and usually opens to vehicles only from late May or early June through the first snowfall in November. It offers a 39-mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows through forests and past meadows, lakes, and granite domes. Many turnouts offer broad and beautiful vistas. From Tioga Road all the way to the south of Mount Whitney, no other roads cross the High Sierra, making this the northern end of the largest contiguous roadless wilderness in the continental United States. The high point of the Tioga Road at Tioga Pass (elevation 9943 feet) is the only place in the park where visitors might encounter the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
Along the Tioga Road at 8600 feet elevation, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada. The Tuolumne River meanders across the meadow while rugged mountain peaks and glacially carved domes surround it. During the brief snow-free summer season the meadow is the site of a massive wildflower bloom, making this an excellent area for day hikes and photography.
Crane Flat is a pleasant forest and meadow area 16 miles (30 minutes) from Yosemite Valley. Crane Flat is accessible by car all year. Bears can be spotted in the meadows in this area regularly, so keep your eyes open and don’t block traffic if you see one!
The Tuolumne Grove has about two dozen mature giant sequoias and is on the Tioga Road just east of Crane Flat. Sequoias are only visible after a one-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss. (The one-mile hike back to the parking lot gains 500 feet and is strenuous.) The drive takes about 1½ hours from South Entrance. Parking is limited.
The Merced Grove is on the Big Oak Flat Road east of Big Oak Flat Entrance and is home to about two dozen mature giant sequoias. Sequoias are only visible after a 1½-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss. (The 1½-mile hike back to the parking lot gains 500 feet and is strenuous.) The drive takes about 1½ hours from South Entrance. Parking is extremely limited.
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Until the completion of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was said to rival Yosemite Valley for beauty. The fight over the dam was a bitter battle between environmentalists including John Muir and the city of San Francisco, and efforts are still ongoing to remove the dam and restore the valley. Today, the dam is used to deliver water from the Tuolumne River 167 miles west to San Francisco. Even though Hetch Hetchy Valley is flooded, it is still home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many less-used wilderness trails. Although the road to Hetch Hetchy is open year-round, on a day-to-day basis it has restricted hours due to security for the reservoir. It may close periodically due to snow in winter and spring. Swimming and boating are not allowed in the reservoir.
The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne lies upstream from Hetch Hetchy and is accessible to hikers. Hikers can also visit two of North America’s largest waterfalls in the Hetch Hetchy Valley: Wapama Falls, at 1,700 ft (520 m), and Tueeulala Falls, at 840 ft (260 m).